Reader: Kathleen Ashby Atkins
Kristen Radtke draws well. That’s the first thing about her essay I notice—she works with an apparently documentary (but not photographic) precision that isolates an impression and invites you to spend your attention on it almost as if you were reading a poem. And then, there’s another frame, another moment of experience connected to the ones before and after—it’s a succession of efforts, each one composed in its rectangle or association of clustered squares. A narrative connects them, but these images are interpretive of a previous, artful fact—a Chris Marker film, Sans Soliel, that Kristen saw and is remembering and reporting in visual dispatches—almost, I thought at first, as if she were replicating the frame by frame progress of the film itself.
But no, she’s not speaking of the whole world of the film. She intersects with it in Iceland and also in a classroom after hours with her friends, in her youth. I can identify with her, maybe, as a partial seer, a viewer, a watcher, an influenced mind. You see that she quotes from the film in grayed images—also in captioned quotes, because she’s both drawing and writing. I absorb these details by looking at the collection of frames down the web page and up again and then starting at the top and working my way down again. I see from her captions that she watched frames of the film running in a projector again and again, but I don’t know whether she was re-running the film for the same reasons that I’m re-scrolling her essay. Her rewind seems to be about aesthetic appreciation. My return to the top is, at first, about making sure I understand even though I’m admiring the handsomeness of the work all along.
The next thing happens: I want to see the film myself because she’s talking about it. Fortunately, I can arrange that—it will happen—but this present moment, in which I talk about Radtke’s “Here,” is the space between sound—Radtke saying “Look!”—and my seeing. It’s like the apprehension between first glimpse of a flash, a bird, maybe a bigger mystery and subsequent, fuller comprehension. Between the first time Radtke sees Sans Soliel (and replays its beginning images again and again because it’s her favorite part) and the next time she sees the film, she arrives at a sense of consequence: “So I went to see it.”
There’s so much more precedent to anything that catches your attention than you can instantly gauge.
So it’s perfect that Radtke’s meditation on the comprehension of experience—and on the working of the earth on us and on the nature of happiness, more or less by the way–is the show and tell of captioned drawings. It’s an incremental, cumulative, courteous, patient, but polished little lurch from one carefully observed impression to the next until we see and can take in all that we can live with and live without and then live next to. That’s how it seems to work: Radtke has made art of sharing a view of slow eruptions of lava that chase us away from home and then cool over years until at last we can return to live here, on an island next to the rubble that experience has made of our time.
- Why do you think Radtke wanted to see that single “image of happiness” with the long piece of black leader at the beginning of Sans Soliel again and again—aside from the fact that she says it was her favorite part? What might be the attraction of it?
- What all do you think is included in the word this when Radtke says in her essay, “Imagine wanting only this”?
On the Reader
Kathleen Ashby Atkins is a photographer, has been an editor most of her professional life, and was a poet in her youth. She lives in Seattle, Washington.